- Sayori, in Shikoku (1999)
This Japanese film by director Shunichi Nagasaki is one of the few post-Ringu horrors that hasn't yet been remade and repackaged in America.
And that's probably a good thing, since Shikoku doesn't trade so much on shocks and suspense as it does powerful human emotions like...love, loneliness and longing. Make no mistake, Shikoku is a frightening genre film in many ways; but it focuses very intently (and grimly) on the meaning of death; and the things that death can take away from those left behind; those still living.
Shikoku depicts the tale of lovely, timid Hinako (Natsukara Yui), a girl who moved away from the island of Shikoku as a child, leaving behind two best friends: a boy named Fumiya (Tsutsui Michitaka), and the object of his affections, Sayori (Kuriyama Chiyaki), a girl with extraordinary powers as a spiritual medium. Like all women in the Hiura family, Sayori is able to let the dead speak through her, and in one horrifying session, a boy inhabits the young girl and tells his grieving parents "I want to get out of here." "Here" being a reference to the Land of the Dead.
Hinako returns to Shikoku as an adult, only to learn that Sayori drowned some years earlier...at the age of sixteen. Fumiya has never been the same since her death, and nor has Sayori's obsessed mother, the last in a long line of priestesses serving on the island. In fact, Sayori's grieving mother has undertaken a strange quest: she is visiting all 88 shrines on the island sixteen times, but in the "reverse" order of the ritual. As Hinako and Fumiya soon discover (from an unpublished, secret book called The Ancient History of Shikoku...), this backwards pilgrimage can transform the island into the Land of the Dead. In fact, in a forested valley, there may be a cave leading to "Yomi," the underworld.
Hinako and Fumiya grow intimate as they learn more about the opening of the doorway to the dead; and there's an amazing scene in the second act in which Fumiya describes to Hinako the depth of his love for Sayori, even though she is long gone. Will he ever really love anyone else? Is he "ruined," because of his early loss? Can he love Hinako the same way that he loves Sayori? This scene is filled with deep, honest emotions, yet never mawkish. It's restrained, and yet the words are heart-wrenching and heart-felt. American movies don't often let characters talk this way; and if they do, it seems corny, or forced. But after this fascinating scene, we realize that Shikoku is a love triangle. Though one point of the triangle is dead and gone, in some senses she still wields the most power.
And then, inevitably, the doorway to the Land of the Dead opens, and Fumiya makes a fateful choice between the living and the dead. His selection is shocking, but right given his character's situation and the undying power of love.
Shikoku eschews flashy pyrotechnics and culminates with a surprise: a long, in-depth conversation between a dead girl, Sayori, and the two friends she left behind on this mortal coil. She's sort of delusional in her "dead state." Sayori believes that she and Fumiya can still have children and carry on the family line. But of course, that's impossible. And Sayori -- very much like the resurrected individuals of Pet Sematary (1989) -- has only one gift remaining that she can endow upon the mortal friends. Death.
There's a real, heart-felt, human dimension to Shikoku that remains incredibly appealing and intriguing. Death brings out different instincts in people. Some deny it. Some grieve it. And some people just categorically refuse to accept death. But, there are consequences, we are told, to changing the natural order of things, and some of those consequences play out in the film.
To provide a crude comparison, Shikoku is like Ghost (1990) without all the sentimental New Age crap. Unlike Ghost, this film doesn't aim to satisfy us merely with the belief that "we take the love with us" to the after life. Instead it asks questions about regret and fate. It pauses long enough for the dead to ask questions of the living. Like "Why did I have to be the one who never got to grow up?"
These are the questions of our mortal existence; of human tragedy, and Shikoku dwells on them. It cannot, however, answer these questions since the great unknown must remain...unknown. But the film is atmospheric and dread-filled because it gazes at the mystery of the beyond; at one intersection of the land of the living and the land of the dead.
Shikoku is a beautifully-realized horror film. At times, a hand-held camera makes us actually feel a part of the land. This is especially so in the case of the river where Hinako almost dies; and where Sayori drowns. These shots are almost always filmed from water level, so it's as though we're up to our necks in it; drowning too. In other scenes, after Sayori has returned from the dead (arising through a small pool of water...), the water always seems to be reflecting upon her person; whether she is actually in it or not. Shunichi Nagasaki is also crafty in the way he shoots the Sayori specter: He shows her eyes and face very infrequently; Sayori seems ever-present...but distant to us. Often, she is turned away with her back to the camera; or appears on her knees (below camera level), preserving the mystery of a returnee from the grave. One line in the film tells the audience that "the newly dead come stand by your bed," and a shiver-invoking scene puts that line to the test.
At the end of Shikoku, Hinako is informed that she will be the one "who lives." She thus leaves Shikoku, gazing back at the mountain which might just be the gateway to another world.
But after everything Shikoku shows us and reveals to us, it's not relief the audience feels at her survival. On the contrary, it feels as though Hinako is the one who has been left behind. Her demons, like Fumiya's, will continue to haunt her. Especially if love survives the grave.